In recent months, Ondo State has been at the centre of grave insecurity in the South West. It was here that a first-class traditional ruler was kidnapped and killed. It was here that the daughter of Chief Reuben Fasoranti, the leader of Afenifere, was also killed in an attempt to kidnap her. It was here that Chief Olu Falae, once the Secretary to the Government of the Federation and who almost won the presidential election in 1999, was also kidnapped. Unfortunately, many of these acts of criminality were traced to people suspected to be of Fulani extraction. The President of the Republic, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari, is a Fulani.
Last Monday, Governor Rotimi Akeredolu of Ondo State, issued a seven-day ultimatum to those who are occupying the state’s forest reserve to vacate the place immediately. Many of these people are believed to be Fulani. He also directed that night grazing would not be permitted anymore in the state. He directed further that children below 18, would not be allowed to be herdsmen in the state.
Reacting to the directive, Garba Shehu, the Senior Special Assistant to President Buhari on media matters, issued a warning that Akeredolu’s directive could have an unexpected and unpleasant domino effect across the country. He said the state government should have opted for dialogue instead. Garba said the Constitution of the Republic guarantees the right of every Nigerian to live in any place of his choice. He warned that the Akeredolu initiative could spark a crisis across the country.
The truth of the matter is that the President disagrees with the Governor on this directive. Buhari would prefer that Akeredolu eats his words. Fortunately for the people of Ondo State, when it comes to eating words, Akeredolu does not have a good appetite.
Yesterday, Donald Ojogo, the Ondo State Commissioner for Information, fired back at Garba Shehu. “The Governor’s directive stands except they are telling the world that the Miyetti Allah (the Fulani cattle rearers organization) is above every law in the land,” Ojogo said the Presidency ought to pay more attention to the Ondo State Government directive instead of allowing itself to be swayed by reckless emotion. “The Ondo State Government did not ask Fulani to leave the state,” he said. “The governor said herdsmen who are unregistered should leave our forest. The statement from Garba Shehu is brazen display of emotional attachment and it’s very inimical to the corporate existence of Nigeria.”
Note that both the Presidency and the Government of Ondo State are controlled by praetors of the All Progressives Congress, APC. It was becoming clear therefore that the spat was also political, not just the issue of security and law and order. “Presidency states in a breath that the Governor fights crime with passion while it is prevaricating on the atrocities,” said Ojogo.
“The question is, are the herdsmen who are perpetrating murder, kidnapping, and robbery more important than government and even the Federal Government in this case?”
Then he took a direct shot at Shehu: “Ethnic nationality and activism on the part of anyone hiding under the Presidency or Federal Government is an ill wind.”
This is a wind that has taken long in coming and it is not going to blow away very soon. Akeredolu, by his action, has raised a debate, not only about criminality, especially those perpetrated by suspected Fulani herders, but also a debate about the reserved forest.
No new reserved forest has been created in Ondo State and the whole of the old Western Region since Chief Obafemi Awolowo left the premiership in 1959. Instead, all the reserves have faced assaults from citizens and foreigners, especially Chinese, who are targeting precious logs and rare games. Since the security crisis started in the North of Nigeria, many people from the Middle-Belt and the Far-North have found refuge in the South of Nigeria, seeking new vocations mostly as farmers, artisans, and okada riders.
The troublesome minority are those who have taken into serious crimes like kidnapping, robbery, and murder. This not only happens in Ondo State but in every state of the South West and other parts of Nigeria.
It is only in recent times people tend to know the difference between the Fulani and the Hausa. The Hausa were mostly the traders and artisans while the Fulani were involved in cattle-herding and traditional medicine (agunmu daada ni) mostly for malaria and aphrodisiac. Today, when you mention Fulani herdsmen, your mind goes to those tough youths terrorizing the forest belt of Ondo, Ekiti, and Oyo states. The criminals have come into our midst and they have virtually succeeded in blackmailing the entire Fulani people who have been living in Yorubaland for generations.
Though Governor Akeredolu restated it on Monday, open grazing has actually been banned in Ondo State since 1984. In January that year, Nigeria’s new military ruler posted Commodore Michael Bamidele Otiko to Ondo State as military governor. One of the first acts of Governor Otiko was to ban the open grazing of animals in the cities, especially Akure. All goats, sheep, pigs, and birds must be reared in a pen. Nobody was allowed to graze cattle in Akure metropolis.
The law was enforced rigorously by the police and other law enforcement agents and many goats and rams were arrested and sentenced to cooking pots of those hardworking government agents.
To preserve the sanctity of the forest reserve, we have the forest guards under the control of the state government. This has been the practice since the colonial days. In recent years, like every other institution in Nigeria, the forest guards have become compromised, hence the presence of Fulani herdsmen and other suspected criminals in the forest reserves. If people are allowed to settle in the forest reserves, then there would be no more reserves and the whole essence of preserving some forests for future generations would be lost. We must not allow this.
It is a pity that the Miyetti Allah organization is allowing itself to defend the Fulani right or wrong. The Hausas and the Fulani are not new to Ondo State or to Yorubaland. For almost 100 years, the village of Sokoto, near Owena, has been in existence, peopled mostly by Hausa traders who are the strong force in the Nigerian kolanut trade. In the 1960s, when my father had a quarry in Akure, most of his workers were able-bodied Hausa youths, all with firm glistering muscles. How they love pap and sugar!
We thank Governor Akeredolu for taking the bold steps to preserve life and property in Ondo State. We should not allow unauthorized people to turn the reserve forest into the colonies of suspected criminals. Secondly, banning night grazing is good. That is when the destruction of farms is done by the herders. Let them seek grazing land and water without destroying other people’s farms. The herders and farmers should complement each other and not become unnecessarily antagonistic.
Night grazing has been banned in Ekiti State now for many years and it has had a salutary effect on the state. Child exploitation should not be allowed in the name of traditional herders. Under-aged children should not be allowed as herders.
The Miyetti Allah group has been sending emissaries to traditional rulers and other leaders since the Governor gave this directive. Their leaders should direct their energy in the right direction.
They should cooperate with the state government to ensure that all legitimate herders are duly registered with the government. Every one of them should carry a proper identification card. Secondly, those who are occupying government reserve land illegally should be asked to move immediately. Thirdly, why should Miyetti Allah encourage underage youths to be herdsmen? Education is free in Ondo State. Let all our youths go to school. That is the way to secure the future.
Lastly, Garba Shehu and the people of his ilk need to be educated that Nigeria is actually a federation. Therefore, the Presidency may be powerful, but it has no piece of land in Ondo State. It may want to create a reserve forest for herders in the Abuja Federal Capital Territory, the only part of the Nigerian estate where the President has direct ownership of land.